Does anyone remember a time when we did not have at-a-glance access to a screen that could tell us exactly what we want to know? A time when physically digging for hard copies, traveling to a destination, and relating to human beings were the only available pathways to get to information? Generation X-ers (and some Millennials), this is where you press your fingertips together and soberly nod your heads.
Of course, unlimited access to the breadth and depth of information that is contained in the internet can only serve to make us smarter, more evolved human beings, right? Well, the answer is not so linear. The reality is that internet use can have certain unexpected effects as to how humans process information.
Fisher, Goddu, and Keil (2015) explored the relationship between the internet and human transactive memory, socially dependent memory systems composed of encoding, storage, and retrieval of information across a group of people. Transactive memory systems are composed of two parts–internal, consisting of “what I know,” and external memory, which tracks what others know. For example, if a group of friends go on a road trip and the car breaks down (pretend there is no access to cell service, internet connection, or roadside assistance), the people in this situation would at some point begin to assess who knows what about cars and proceed accordingly. So, these social memory systems enable individuals to divide cognitive tasks among each other.
Even though transactive memory systems are traditionally studied in application to the human social sphere, they can be similarly applied in a context where the internet serves as external memory. A body of research suggests that within this frame, retention of internal memory may be negatively impacted (Fisher 2015). Unlike typical transactive memory systems that rely on relationships, with the internet there is no mutual sharing of information and therefore no need for other relational nuances like negotiation and dividing of responsibility. As the internet asks nothing of people, and people rely on it as the one all-knowing expert, accountability for and tracking of one’s own internal memory decreases .
A body of research shows that when there is an impediment to tracking internal memory, people can have a distorted sense of what they actually know. For instance, when people seek information from sources, like other people or libraries, the distinction of “what I know” and “what the other knows” is clear. However, this line becomes blurred with the overarching accessibility, immediacy, and reliability of the internet, and the result is that evaluations of “what I know” can become overinflated (Fisher 2015). In a similar way, people tend to be able to have increased ability to recall where they found information but decreased ability to recall the information itself (Sparrow, Lieu, & Wegner 2011).
As that the internet is and will continue to occupy the function of a primary transactive memory partner for humans, the workings of this “partnership” and how it affects those on the user end is a burgeoning field of study. Considering how deeply the internet is woven into our lives, increased exploration of how our minds and bodies interact with the internet is a necessary pursuit.
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Fisher, M., Goddu, M. K., & Keil, F. C. (2015). Searching for explanations: How the Internet inflates estimates of internal knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(3), 674–687. doi: 10.1037/xge0000070
Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776–778. doi: 10.1126/science.1207745
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